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Fast, whippet-thin and banned here, advocates argue the US-made Tango 600 could solve congestion and emission problems. (Image: supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)
Fast, whippet-thin and banned here, advocates argue the US-made Tango 600 could solve congestion and emission problems. (Image: supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)

BusinessAugust 23, 2022

Cheap, green vehicles are taking off overseas. Why are they banned here?

Fast, whippet-thin and banned here, advocates argue the US-made Tango 600 could solve congestion and emission problems. (Image: supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)
Fast, whippet-thin and banned here, advocates argue the US-made Tango 600 could solve congestion and emission problems. (Image: supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)

We’re a nation of drivers, acquiring more cars with bigger engines and driving them further every year. But, despite our emissions crisis and congestion problems, the world’s bestselling and cheapest EVs aren’t allowed on our roads and the transport minister says that’s not changing any time soon. 

The world’s most popular EV isn’t available in New Zealand. The Wuling Hongguang Mini EV – jointly developed with US car giant GM – sells for between US$4,000 and US$6,000.

If it was available in Aotearoa and attracted the clean car discount you could pick one up for less than the price of an e-bike or possibly even for free. No doubt it’s that super low price that saw it nudge the Tesla Model 3 from the top-selling EV spot in March last year.  

So, what do you get for that bargain-basement price? A boxy, four-seater car with a top speed of 100km/h and a range of 120km.

And China is far from alone in having micro-EVs on offer for under NZ$12,000. The Citroen Ami sells for  €7,300 (NZ$11,660). With a top speed of 45km/h and just two seats, the Ami is not technically a car and therefore can be driven by anyone over the age of 14.

The micro-car was Citroen’s biggest-seller last year and is popular not only in France’s cities but in rural areas.

No one’s claiming it’s a looker: The ugly but affordable Wuling Hongguang Mini EV (Photo: David290/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Ami is the first of what promises to be a new category of micro-EVs in Europe. The very funky, BMW Isetta-inspired Microlino goes into production in Switzerland in the coming months. The Ami and Isetta are classified as quadricycles rather than cars, but in terms of urban transportation they provide many of the benefits of a car for a fraction of the price. The problem is they can’t be legally driven on our roads.

The Wuling is currently in a grey zone with a Waka Kotahi spokesperson saying it would probably also be classed as a quadricycle. However, a Lithuanian-produced model of the Wuling recently went on sale in Europe as a fully-fledged motorway-capable car – and European safety regulations are every bit as stringent as New Zealand’s.

Transport minister Michael Wood says he saw an Ami on a recent trip to Oslo and has been lobbied about allowing quadricycles on our roads but isn’t yet convinced they’re right for New Zealand.  The appropriateness of micro-vehicles for New Zealand conditions was identified as an area that needed attention under the Emissions Reduction Plan, he says, but was unlikely to be done before the end of 2023 or 2024.

The 2021 Citroen Ami (Photo: John K / CC BY-SA 4.0)

“It’s a dialogue we’ve had and clearly there are some benefits on the electrification side – but we’re pretty successfully electrifying our fleet anyway. The other argument is about road space which is more of a congestion argument than a decarbonisation argument.

“The key tradeoff and regulatory issue is around safety,” he says. “They almost all inevitably rate at the lowest safety rating of zero to one star. So that’s the policy challenge.”

Paradoxically, Wood says the potential popularity of micro-EVs could be in conflict with the government’s commitment to reducing the kilometres travelled by privately owned automobiles – conversely encouraging people who walk, cycle or take public transport to use a micro-EV instead. 

Self-described micro-car evangelist Toa Greening says safety concerns are overblown when compared to the risk posed by e-scooters which can be legally driven on our roads without a helmet. He’s sceptical of Wood’s suggestion that micro-EVs could see a modal shift from active and public transport modes to micro-EVs. “As a casual cyclist I really doubt it, as we cycle in part for the enjoyment of it.”

Greening has been banging on about micro-EVs for the best part of a decade. He made it on to Campbell Live back in 2014 when he imported a Tango 600 to try to drum up interest in mass producing the US-designed micro-EV in New Zealand. It’s a very narrow, very fast micro-EV that made headlines around the world when actor George Clooney bought one in 2005.

In 2018 Greening launched a Pledge Me campaign seeking half a million dollars to fund the setting up of a micro-car leasing programme. Just $2,000 was pledged – possibly because the Tango 600 wasn’t and isn’t road legal in New Zealand.

The Tango T600 on the road – not in New Zealand, clearly. (Photo: Commuter Cars / Supplied)

Greening is convinced the Tango 600 ticks off the biggest two challenges facing transport in the 21st century: congestion and emissions.

If you’re wondering how any car can help reduce congestion, the answer, according to Greening, is in the Tango 600’s width. It’s narrow enough that, in theory, you could fit two side-by-side in a single lane.

 The Tango 600 – like Elon Musk’s Tesla – aimed to attract car drivers over to EVs with the promise of high-speed and high-performance vehicles that could hold their own against top-of-the-line ICE (internal combustion engine) competition.

With a top speed of more than 240km/h, the Tango 600 is more an enclosed superbike than the electrified shopping trolley that is the Citroen Ami. Greening says micro-EVs are the perfect replacement for a family’s second car: ideal for trips to the supermarket, school drop-offs and city commuting.

Greening has estimated that a fleet of 280,000 micro-EVs similar to the Tango 600 would reduce Auckland’s carbon emissions by 2.1 million tonnes per year. In 2018, transport contributed 4.3 million tonnes of carbon emissions to Auckland’s total.

Greening calculated that 1.3 million tonnes of carbon emissions would be saved from the switch from petrol and diesel cars to EVs, and 0.8 million tonnes from a reduction in congestion due to vehicles like the Tango being able to drive two abreast in a single lane. 

Congestion increases emissions simply because traffic is slowed and cars spend longer on the road.

Back to the future

Micro-EVs might be a new concept in New Zealand, but micro-cars aren’t.

The Fiat 500, better known in New Zealand as the Bambina, weighed in at just under 500 kilos, about the same as the Citroen. More than 5000 of the tiny cars – named for its CC rating, not its weight – were assembled locally and in 1960 you could buy one for just £499.

The contrast with its direct descendant, the Fiat 500 Dolcevita, encapsulates the story of motorcars over the last half century. While still one of the smallest cars on the road, the Dolcevita’s 1.2 litre engine is more than twice the size of the Bambina’s. The new model is nearly double the Bambina’s weight, and it’s grown in length by more than half a metre.

The Bambina’s price tag adjusted for inflation comes to just under $25,000 – about what you would pay for the Dolcevita.

The 2019 special edition Fiat Dolcevita (Photo: Supplied)

There have been numerous safety and performance improvements over the years, but the one metric that’s barely changed is its fuel efficiency – and therefore its carbon emission. The newer car manages 4.8 litres per 100km compared to 5.1 litres for the original. 

Sixty years of technological improvements have barely moved the petrol, or emissions, gauges. (The Bambina’s fuel efficiency would see it qualify for a clean car discount.) The Dolcevita’s 1.2 litre engine is about half that of the average car sold in New Zealand, where the number of vehicles per person trebled between the 1950s and early 2000s. And between 1980 and 2000, total annual vehicle kilometres travelled in New Zealand more than doubled, from 18.52 billion to 37.33 billion. Engines have also grown in size. By 2006, the average engine size of a vehicle in New Zealand was more than 2.2 litres, up from 2 litres at the beginning of the decade. 

It would be a stretch to say the Bambina was an expression of the motoring zeitgeist of the time – its production run coincided with the height of the “yank tank” phase in the US – but it offered an alternative vision that was in line with the nascent environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s. 

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction,” E.F. Schumacher wrote in the 1973 bestseller Small is Beautiful.

Only time will tell whether New Zealand has the courage to embrace the micro-EV trend being embraced from Beijing to Paris.

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